Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Commandos Are Coming

One of the things that has always impressed me about the comic book work of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby is that no matter what comic publisher they worked for, what you got was a Simon-Kirby comic. They didn't conform to house styles of writing or drawing. Heck, many times they created the house style, dethroning the previous approaches by the sheer power and energy of their work. If you look at Captain America, Sandman, The Newsboy Legion, Stuntman, or any of S&K's output, they seem to belong less to the Marvel or DC or Harvey universes than to the Simon and Kirby universe. The imprint is that strong.
I was thinking about this as I read through the latest release in DC's Simon and Kirby Omnibus series, The Boy Commandos. I've blogged before about how I used to love the DC 100 Page Super Spectaculars because they reprinted tons of old comics as backups to the lead features. This is where I first met the Boy Commandos. Later, I kept an eye out for those reprints. I found quite a few, but this new volume contains several stories I haven't read.
From the first story which introduces the multinational gang of lads (Pierre from France, Jan from Holland, Alfy from Britain, and Brooklyn from the USA) we are firmly in Simon and Kirby land. I used to think that just meant those running, leaping, punching, figures that Kirby did so well and the over the top storytelling, but it seems, on re-reading some of these stories, that the writing is more solid than in a lot of comics from this period. Each Boy Commandos story in this volume is a mini-war movie, filled with pro ally propaganda, patriotism, and the sort of heartfelt can-do spirit that was part and parcel of the World War Two era. Reading Boy Commandos made me want to run out and buy war bonds and stamps right now. I can only imagine what affect it had on the readers of the time period.
Checking the DC Sandman and newsboy legion volumes, I find that the writing is just as strong. Simon and Kirby told stories about people and the heroes, rather than being the focus of the tales, were often merely bystanders until action was called for. There's just some very strong writing in these stories. That's as much a S&K trademark as the bombastic artwork.
If you're not familiar with the Boy Commandos, the crew are war orphans who have been adopted as mascots by the Commando units, at least in the early stories. They are watched over by Rip Carter, a dashing commando Captain who acts much as the Guardian does in the Newsboy Legion, kind of a Pat Ryan to his four Terrys. As the series progresses, there is less talk of mascots and the boys actually seem to BE commandos, showing up in dangerous situations without much explanation. The stories range all over the world, as did the war. Wherever Hitler and his goons are causing problems, you're likely to find the Boy Commandos right in the thick of it. (It seems to me that the Boy Commandos stories are tighter and more realistic than those of the Newsboy Legion, but that may just be because of the war backdrop.)
It seems that in most of the Simon and Kirby kid gang comics, Jack Kirby usually had a character that mirrored his younger self. Kirby grew up on the lower east Side of New York and he says, in an interview with Jim Steranko that he knew all the kids you see in his comics. he wore the baggy pants and the turtlenecks. Using that as a visual clue, Scrapper is probably Kirby's self projection in the Newsboy Legion. Brooklyn is an easier call in Boy Commandos since in addition to talking like a Warner Brothers' gangster and wearing the turtleneck, he's the only American kid in the gang.
Anyway the Boy Commandos are another example of just why Simon and Kirby were the first real super-stars of comics. Solid writing, great art, and characters that kids could identify with. What more do you want?

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